USC football ready for early opener in empty Coliseum – Press Enterprise
There’s a certain relief for USC just reaching Saturday’s season opener against Arizona State. For months, this possibility seemed fleeting, and the wait could have extended to the spring, or worse, the fall of 2021.
But the feeling of elation Trojan players and coaches are experiencing doesn’t necessarily erase the weirdness of all the surrounding circumstances of the game – particularly when it comes to the empty Coliseum in which USC is about to play.
The Pac-12 ruled fans would not be allowed on site during this seven-game regular season. An exception was made for parents and family of players if local health departments acquiesced, but L.A. County rejected this idea.
So USC will find itself in a hollow Coliseum on Saturday.
“I don’t think any of us have played in an empty stadium in our lives; even in Pop Warner you had your parents there, a few people watching,” receiver and newly elected captain Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “Empty stadiums, it’ll be different. We’re going to have to come up with some juice and some energy and that’s the biggest thing.”
USC has spent the past few Saturdays preparing for this, as well as the early 9 a.m. start time. The Trojans scrimmaged at the Coliseum each Saturday of training camp, waking up early to go through the new pregame routine that includes COVID-19 testing before breakfast.
This past weekend, USC went a step further, staying in the team hotel so players could have that experience under their belts. One new part of COVID protocols the players don’t mind: Individual hotel rooms, meaning no roommates.
Head coach Clay Helton described the first Coliseum scrimmage, with no background noise, as “eerie”. But in subsequent trips to the home stadium, the Trojans incorporated music, artificial crowd noise and marketing sounds, which eased some of the awkwardness.
“You still get the noises you normally hear during a game, whether it’s the third-down dong, the bell ringing,” Helton explained. “So you get that feel, which makes it more normal.”
Even still, nothing quite replaces the roar of an actual crowd after a big play. Which will put pressure on the sideline to replicate some of that energy.
“It’s really just playing together, like doing it for your brothers, doing it for one another. People on the sideline, they have to bring more of the juice,” said safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, another new USC captain. “Even when we’re on the field, we have to bring more juice, too. It’s gonna be tough without the crowd behind us, but we can create that same energy with ourselves.”
When Arizona State has the ball
Last year, the Trojans didn’t face Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels, who missed the game with a knee injury. The Trojans were able to pick off his backup twice, but likely won’t have such luck against Daniels, who threw two interceptions his entire true freshman season.
Even with Arizona State having lost its leading running back and receiver from a year ago, this will be an interesting first matchup for USC’s new defense. First-year defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said he expects to see Arizona State utilize shift trades and motions, characteristics from new Sun Devil offensive coordinator Zak Hill’s scheme at Boise State. The Trojans are also game-planning to contain Daniels in the pocket.
This game will also reveal a lot about Orlando’s scheme: Are Pola-Mao and fellow safety Talanoa Hufanga as good a fit as suspected? What does Drake Jackson’s hybrid outside backer spot look like? Is this the year of linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV? Stay tuned.
When USC has the ball
The Trojans have little information to work with to prepare for the Arizona State defense, led by co-coordinator Marvin Lewis, whose last coordinator job was in 2002 in the NFL. So USC is largely preparing by studying personnel. Arizona State returns its top four tacklers from a year ago, including disruptive lineman Jermayne Lole.
As USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell likes to say, usually with the Air Raid, it comes down to out-executing opponents, not out-scheming them. The Trojans are in Year 2 of the offensive system, with second-year starting quarterback Kedon Slovis growing in his comfort level with the offense and as a leader, being named one of the team captains Thursday.
Last year against Arizona State, the Trojans started the game with one healthy scholarship running back, which limited USC to 70 rushing yards. This year, the Trojans will have a healthy, four-back rotation, which should put pressure on the Sun Devils defense.